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House of Commons Hansard
18 March 2010
Volume 507

    The Minister for Women and Equality was asked—

    Equality and Human Rights Commission

  • 1. What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322776]

  • 2. What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322777]

  • 4. What recent representations she has received on the recommendations in the Fifteenth Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, HC 124. [322779]

  • Since the report was published on 4 March I have not received any representations about its recommendations. The Government’s response to the report will be set out in due course, in the way that the Government respond to reports by the Public Accounts Committee, which is through a Treasury minute.

  • The Committee revealed that several staff members of the legacy commissions left through an early exit scheme, and were subsequently rehired by the new commission at a cost of £338,708. Does the Minister agree that that represents a shocking waste of taxpayers’ hard-earned money?

  • The hon. Gentleman, and the House, will know that there is a system for monitoring the finances of non-departmental public bodies. They are subject to the scrutiny of accounting officers, and there is a framework to ensure that public money is properly spent and everything is kept in order. We are concerned for two reasons. First, we want to ensure that every pound of public money that comes from taxpayers is properly spent, wherever in the public sector it is spent. We are also concerned to ensure that the Equality and Human Rights Commission works well, because we—unlike his good self, no doubt, and many Opposition Members, unfortunately—are concerned about equality.

  • Following on from the earlier point, is the Minister aware that the transition team, comprising 83 people employed over an 18-month period, received on average £100,000 each? Does she think that that was good value for money?

  • As I have said, there are proper frameworks for arranging for non-departmental public bodies to spend money, which they do independently. They are not Government Departments and are subject to a framework, and to scrutiny and accountability. Obviously, we want to make sure that they spend all that money wisely, but individual payments are the responsibility of accounting officers and the chief executive, not my responsibility as Minister for Women and Equality—although obviously, we are concerned to ensure that every pound of public money is properly spent, and that the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is an important organisation, does its job properly.

  • That framework and accountability mechanism seems to have broken down, because in July 2009 the commission itself found that it was employing some 574 full-time equivalent staff when it was authorised to employ only 525. Is not that another shocking waste of public money?

  • Where there have been concerns they have been pointed out, and the commission has taken steps to address them. That is part of the process of transparency: where public money is being spent, there is scrutiny to make sure that it is being spent in the right way, in order to meet the important public policy objective of pursuing equality. That is what is happening.

  • The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, also reported on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It asked the Minister why she reappointed the chairman of that body without putting the appointment out to open competition. How is that transparent and accountable?

  • As I said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it called me in to give evidence, the chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission had left her post. Especially because the Equality Bill was going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, I felt that we needed continuity of leadership, and therefore that it was right to reappoint the chair and vice-chair. Obviously, we were then going to need to find new commissioners and a new chief executive, but we did not want a wholesale change of personnel in this important organisation at a critical time.

    Hon. Members should look at the substance of the work that has been done by the commission. They should look at the important inquiry into sex discrimination in the financial sector; the important legal challenge to the apartheid constitution of the British National party; the work on the unfairness to agency workers in the meat packing industry; and the important evidence the commission gave on the question of the default retirement age. The question is this: are hon. Members—I exclude the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), who asked the question, from this, because I accept his good faith—interested in discrimination against people on the ground of age, discrimination against agency workers, and discrimination against women in the financial services sector? Members from the official Opposition are having a go at the commission as a proxy for the fact that they do not like the onward march of equality.

  • This is an apposite moment to come into this debate, because my charge is that the EHRC is not doing the work that it should be doing. Does the Minister agree that it should spend less time pontificating on what organisations should and should not do, and far more time using its powers and legal challenges to hold businesses and public bodies to account, and on enforcing the legislation that already exists, which it is not doing to any great degree?

  • The commission is making sure that it plays its part in enforcing existing legislation, and works with us to help to shape future legislation. It is also making sure that it looks at all the places where inequality exists, works with all the organisations—business, trade unions and voluntary organisations—and helps individuals. I know that the hon. Lady shares my concern that where there is inequality, it needs to be tackled. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is an important part of the process for making that happen.

  • Domestic Violence

  • 3. What steps are being taken to reduce the incidence of domestic violence against women. [322778]

  • Due to the introduction of specialist domestic violence courts, better multi-agency arrangements to focus on prolific perpetrators and better support for victims and families, there has been a 64 per cent. reduction in the incidence of domestic violence between 1997 and 2008-09, as measured by the British crime survey. An extra £5 million will be invested in 2010-11 to support multi-agency risk assessment conferences and independent domestic violence advisers.

  • The number of cases of domestic violence reported to the police in Selby and York in the last year increased by 26 per cent., which shows the importance of establishing specialist domestic violence police services. But more reports mean more victims and children who need support. What are the Government doing to increase the funding for independent domestic abuse services and to ensure the prosecution of the perpetrators of this crime?

  • We welcome increased reporting. I can tell my hon. Friend that there were 67,000 prosecutions in 2008-09, increasing from 50,000 in 2005-06. The conviction rate also increased from 46 per cent. of those charged in 2003-04 to 72 per cent. in 2008-09. That is why domestic violence crime is falling. We are putting more focus on it, there are more prosecutions, the conviction rate is up and the incidence is down. There is more help for victims, and the courts, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and all authorities are better able to understand this crime and to do the job. That is not to say that more cannot be done; it can, but the focus on the issue has led to the fall in the volume of this crime.

  • There were worrying findings in last week’s report on the role of the NHS in supporting the victims of domestic violence. Does the Minister agree with the chair of the taskforce that too little has been done by the NHS so far in this area?

  • No. It is important to realise that many of our public services have not in the past focused on the impact of this crime as much as we would like them to do, or as much as they are now doing. We welcome that increase in focus from the NHS and from other public services. It is only when all public services, working together, focus on the needs of the victims and of children in families in which domestic violence is perpetrated that we see increased reporting, better conviction rates, and a better result and outcome for all of us.

  • Several hon. Members

    rose

  • Order. I would like other colleagues to be able to get in too, so I need short questions and answers.

  • As well as using a criminal justice response to reduce domestic violence—which is working—how are we trying to prevent future domestic violence by educating young people about the unacceptability of violence in the home?

  • My hon. Friend is right to identify that as an important point for the future. We are making personal, social and health education statutory in schools, and domestic violence will be part of that curriculum. We are also making it easier for children who are affected by this in their families to be listened to independently, by giving greater support to the listening services provided by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We hope that that will have a real impact.

  • Incidents of violence against women in Northern Ireland have been increasing in recent years. Will the Minister join me in expressing the hope and expectation that as policing and justice powers move from this House to the Northern Ireland Assembly next month, this issue will be a matter of priority for the incoming justice Minister?

  • I welcome the further devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly; the hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have had a particular interest in that myself in the past. I hope that the move will lead to Ministers with responsibility for health and other areas of public service working together with the new policing and justice Minister in Northern Ireland to find relevant local solutions to such problems to achieve the greatest impact on domestic violence in the area. We do not want just to export solutions; it is for local people to come up with their own solutions. The more Ministers work together, the more they are likely to come up with a solution that will work locally.

  • In focusing on what lies behind domestic violence, the recent report by Dr. Linda Papadopoulos examined the issue of sexualisation and violence. The evidence given to the report suggested a clear link between consumption of sexualised images, a tendency to view women as objects, and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. We believe that we should ban the most manipulative marketing techniques aimed at young people, and stop irresponsible companies from winning future Government contracts. Do the Government agree?

  • A late convert to effective action is better than no convert at all. We would certainly welcome support from any party in the House, across party politics, in ensuring that the equality agenda is moved forward and that young girls can have the same protection and the same likelihood of doing well in society as young boys.

  • Police Stop and Search

  • 6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on use by police of stop-and-search powers in relation to black and Asian youths. [322781]

  • The Minister for Women and Equality has had no direct discussions with the Home Secretary on this issue. The Government are committed to delivering a policing service, and a wider criminal justice system, that promote equality and do not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their race. The National Policing Improvement Agency is working to reduce unjustified disproportionality in stop and search by police forces. Tackling that will increase community confidence in stop and search as a useful tool with which police can keep the community safe.

  • Will the Minister join me in welcoming the report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission? We have heard some comments about the commission, but here is a very good report into the problems with stop and search. We cannot go on with this disproportionality. What are we going to do about it?

  • I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the EHRC report on the disproportionality of stop-and-search powers and their use by police forces. It shows that people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched if they are black, and twice as likely if they are Asian, and that there are inexplicable differences between different police forces and persistent ratios across time in particular areas. It is important that police forces look carefully at how they use their powers, and that they use them to protect the public rather than inadvertently to undermine the confidence of the public. The work of the NPIA will be key to ensuring that that happens.

  • Access to Information (People with Disabilities)

  • 7. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on equality of access to information for blind, partially sighted and print-disabled people. [322783]

  • We have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, which sponsors the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, which requires employers, service providers and bodies delivering functions to make reasonable adjustments. That duty is a cornerstone of the protection for disabled people and has been carried forward into the Equality Bill, which was amended on Report in the other place to make more explicit the application of that duty in respect of disabled people who experience information disadvantage.

  • I welcome that amendment, and the commitment of Ministers. Will my hon. Friend ensure that this matter is understood and driven ahead at every level, and in every Department and Government agency, as a matter of urgency?

  • Indeed. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality is already on the job. The Government Equalities Office is also ensuring that other Departments are fully aware of the provisions in the Bill, and advice will be updated as those provisions come into force. I believe that there is also a role for Members of the House to be vigilant in ensuring that within their own localities the equality message is clear and understood. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will be at the forefront in achieving that.